We just returned from a 10 day river trip up the Xingu River to a town of about 10,000 people called Porto de Moz. We are sorry for the complete absence of pictures as our camera didn’t work throughout the whole trip. Journal entries follow:
We took the line boat last night from Vitoria (about an hour drive from Altamira) to Porto de Moz. Its about 120 mi and takes 11 hr by boat. The line boats are river taxis and several travel each day along this part of the Xingu and onto the Amazon River. We arrived at about 5:00p for a scheduled 6:00p departure and the boat was already packed. The space for passengers is about 40 ft long and about 40 hammocks were hung in this space when we left. It’s very hot and very crowded. Because the deck is all open, once we began moving there was a refreshing breeze. We tried to sleep and the kids seemed to do ok. The total lack of personal space seemed to more uncomfortable for Bets and me. Every movement in your rede (“hedgie”) resulted in bumping two or three other people. It’s a strange experience but each time we do it, it’s less uncomfortable.
We’ve spent the last two days in Porto de Moz, a town near the junction of the Xingu and the Amazon rivers. Porto de Moz is an old river town that may date back to 1700. It’s almost all dirt roads contained within about one square kilometer. Its quite poor economically as most houses are wood and about 4 x 5 meters. They look like shacks and have many gaps in the walls, no screens, no or minimal plumbing and no or minimal electricity. We stayed with the Bouthillers who have been missionaries here for six years. They have a guest house that has electricity, running water, and plumbing, but no internet access. We and our thousands of insect friends (ants, spiders, and roaches), were quite comfortable, especially when we looked at the living conditions of those around us. We didn’t have screens but wore repellent and did ok with the mosquitoes. Meredith, however, got mauled on one side of her body. We figured we must have “missed a spot” with the repellent. This house is exactly the type of house we will likely build when we move away from Altamira, so it was nice to get a feel for living “this way”. It’s small (7 x 10 m) but has five rooms and a bathroom. It’s made of brick and has tile floors and costs $15,000 to build. It would be more than sufficient for us, with the possible addition of a school room. We were all pretty pleased with the set-up. We were able to have many discussions with the Bouthillers about how to begin a river ministry and we explored various possible locations that would benefit from a medicine and ministry marriage. Richie has a real heart for the poorer people of this region and sees medicine as a service that would be so well received by these people who have little access to care and who also, for the most part, are unchurched. Richie’s boat is about 20 x 5 meters and, if duplicated today, would cost about $50,000, everything included. If we customized it for providing health care on the river, it could cost more. How we would best customize it, if at all, remains open to explore. Does it need to be this big? Or bigger? Would we want, for example, a simple operating room for visiting surgical teams to use? Would enough people benefit from the cost? These numbers are huge and will force me to stop and consider and pray. We would need to weigh our commitment and the duration of that commitment before construction. We would want to choose an area that would maximize the usefulness of the tool for eternal purposes. It would be a step of similar magnitude to our decision to “go”. I will trust God to speak, guide and direct my steps. Please pray with us. At this point, I’m quite encouraged about a medicine and ministry marriage. The need for both is great here and there is an obvious gratitude in those served medically that seems to open hearts to Jesus. God does meet people at their place of need. Perhaps not always as expected, but He is so faithful, nonetheless. And I have great confidence in those of you in the states who want to participate in this type of ministry but have not been called to go.
The electricity goes out several times per day and went out during the church service tonight. The service didn’t miss a beat. Candles were lit and the worship continued.
Our first day on the boat. We traveled west off the Xingu into a network of tributaries to the Cupari (Koo-pah-dee) River and a village of about 300 people. The scenery is spectacular, and totally different than when Luke and I came by here two months ago. The houses have lost their stilts! Every house is sitting on the water and many have water over the floor. The six – ten foot stilts are immersed. The houses all look like they are floating on the water. The flood plain extends from horizon to horizon in every direction, making the amount of moving water simply impossible to comprehend. We were frequently entertained by river dolphins which are just like their oceanic cousins except they have a pink hue to their gray color. We passed a village and we were told that the villagers had, just this week, killed a nine meter anaconda(!). That just gives me the willies and I hope I never confront such a thing. Several times we had to travel off the river, through the flood plain, because large “islands”, complete with trees and brush, had floated and blocked the river. These can be up to two hundred meters square and can completely block off a village from river travel if not dislodged. The men break up the island with a saw and a canoe. I guess it’s a tremendous amount of work. I can’t imagine. The work is a survival must for those living so remotely. For us, the boat ride was relaxing and there were many river folks on board so it was fun trying to interact with them. They were quite gracious and the language practice was good.
We arrived after about a 6 hr ride, swam with the piranha (I love saying that…I’m still getting used to it!) and prepared for an evening service. The church bldg is about 10 x 15 meters and was constructed over the past year. When we were here last year, they were putting on the roof (barefoot, climbing on the framing with a chainsaw…). About 50 people arrived in over a dozen canoes and the people sat on the floor or buckets, or pieces of wood, etc for the service. I gave a message about Thomas (I can relate to that guy) encountering Jesus after His coming back to life, while Richie translated. The highlight of the evening came when Christie Bouthiller stepped outside, carrying her six month old, who was fussing. She walked out the door of the church, stepped to the left of the two steps, and fell straight down into five feet of black river water. It was completely dark outside the bldg and there were several boards missing in the decking right where she stepped. It was remarkable that she fell straight down, because the opening was only about two ft x two ft and if she didn’t fall as she did, she or her son could have really been hurt. Her son will likely never fuss in a service again! Richie cleaned up the rookie preacher’s distracted message and the night ended well. It so highlights that, on the river, one never knows what will happen. With the vulnerability to the weather, the poor construction, the bugs, etc, “Lord willing” takes on a significance here that we don’t appreciate in the states.
The next morning, we agreed to answer a couple medical questions and before we were done we had seen over fifty people and worked until lunch. These folks obviously cherished the opportunity to ask questions of a doctor. We saw a variety of complaints, including the following: an abdominal mass, skin lesions, chronic headaches, burning urination (these folks live in a chronic state of dehydration), ear infections, sinusitis, parasitic infections, abscesses, asthma, gastritis, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome. So many familiar things, made a bit more impressive knowing these people live in these raw conditions about ten hours from any health care.
The setting…. Barefoot doctor in a borrowed bedroom for an exam room. Doctor, translator on one bed and patient and family on another bed. The floor is unpainted decking with water sometimes splashing through. Immediately outside the window, on some outdoor decking, a pig is being slaughtered and butchered for lunch. The crowded “waiting room” is the kitchen (the only other room in the house), where everyone waits patiently on the floor for up to several hours. Maybe this setting isn’t so different from the states after all! Every few minutes, the home owner enters the room and plops on the bed and listens, offering his suggestions and asking questions. Through the window I saw many canoes ride by, each holding several kids, on the way to school, which is about ½ mi upriver. No adults were in the canoes, and it reminded me of kids riding their bikes to a neighborhood elementary school.
When we were finished, we sat without chairs on the deck where the pig was butchered (the “insides” were laying in the corner). We ate the pork along with chicken, rice and beans. About thirty people ate and there was much conversation and laughter. The hosts were quite gracious and we understand that it was quite sacrificial for them to kill one of their few pigs for us. The food scraps were tossed into the water (the deck was surrounded by water on three sides) and immediately devoured by the thousands of piranha swirling about. That was pretty impressive.
We loaded up and took off for the next village, about six hours away. We stopped to answer a medical question at another village. In one morning, word had traveled to a village separated by six to ten hours of boat travel (depending on the boat), that a doctor was on board our boat. As we slowed our speed while passing the village, a 60 y/o woman canoed out about 200yds in a dugout canoe. She asked about her daughter who had severe asthma and had had a rough night. After some questions, it was determined that it was not immediately life-threatening, and we gave her some medicine that would likely benefit her daughter by the following morning. The picture of this white-haired woman paddling out to us in this dugout was memorable.
We went on to the other village and arrived in time for an evening service. We worshipped with a guitar for about 30 minutes and it was obvious that what was going on was unfamiliar to this group of about 40-50 people. Richie later told us that this village was without a church and likely without believers. I preached a message about how Jesus, after His rising, met Thomas at a place of honesty. I taught that Jesus’ disciples had fear and doubt and were not unlike us. Their encounter with the risen Jesus changed them. That same encounter is available to us and to these river folks. The message was received well and it seemed they were hanging on every word. That twenty minutes was the most fun I’ve had since being here. In a wooden river house over the floodwaters, in the dark, speaking by a candle of water buffalo fat. There were people inside and about twenty people outside crowding around the windows. They were either interested in the message or had never seen such a creature before. It was so cool speaking to this group who had not encountered Jesus but, by their attention, seemed quite interested. It was such a picture of what we came here to do. I loved having this opportunity to communicate God’s affection for them. The message flowed much better than the day before and I sensed God’s control over my words. One day I’ll know of any eternal impact. I thought of the many friends back home who sacrifice to send us to these people. I’m so grateful to be here, doing this.
We spent the following morning here watching a family make water buffalo cheese. We got to watch the whole process and it was pretty impressive in these condition. River water, an open fire, a t-shirt for a milk strainer, etc. We had pork and rice and beans for lunch. I saw several people with health issues and then we swam and jumped off the boat for about an hour. This river was so full of piranha that you could see the water swirling from their presence but there was no concern for swimming. We saw a small boat that picks kids up and takes them to school at 0730 and brings them home at 1230. No, it was not painted yellow! Most kids on the rivers attend school through the 4th grade.
We had a day and a half in Porto de Moz, then awoke this morning for a 0600 departure on the boat to a youth retreat upriver. This is held at the same “camp” that hosted Cristoval in Feb. About 40 people ranging from adolescence to young adulthood are attending this “encontra”, which means “encounter”. The kids come for two days to receive teaching and to worship and play together. The first day they are encouraged to not speak but to really focus on receiving from God and speaking only to Him. The second day is full of games and fun, with a worship celebration at night. I spoke in the morning on worship, using the woman in Luke 7 as an illustration of focused devotion to Jesus. I spoke in the afternoon on STD’s, as much instruction was devoted to adolescent issues.
In preaching and teaching, I have much to learn and need much practice. My delivery is often not smooth and is difficult to follow. I leave thinking of many things I could’ve, should’ve said, or things I forgot to include. The more practice, the better. Its another opportunity for me to trust. Trust God in both what is said and how it is received. I am so tempted to trust what I see and what I feel. So many things in my life right now seem to challenge who I have my eyes on and who am I trusting.
These kids come from very poor homes and you could tell that the boat ride and the camp setting were fun for them. They received very direct teaching on sex, immorality, how men see women and vice versa. They learned of healing available in Jesus in this area and healthy attitudes toward dating and marriage. It was teaching that most youth in the states don’t get. It was remarkable to see these kids, living in a rural Amazon town, receive such truth and encouragement.
In the evening, a river man living nearby got stung by a stingray, and we were called to help. These are abundant in these rivers and, if stepped on, snap their tail up at the offender and sting the foot or ankle. Apparently, it is one of the most severe, constant pains one can encounter and typically lasts about 24 hrs. The man’s father was there and stated that he’d been stung six times and each time the pain lasted for 20-24 hrs. This man had a puncture wound about the size of a pencil near his ankle bone (medical term) and was writhing in pain and drenched in sweat. We anesthetized the area with Xylocaine (similar to what a dentist would use) with no benefit. We soaked his foot in hot water for an hour and saw no benefit. We told him that was all we could do and we laid our hands on him and prayed for him. We asked God to somehow be glorified in this and asked if He would take the pain away quickly. We left feeling sympathy for him, knowing he had a long night ahead of him. We returned two hrs later to a man sitting up and smiling, pain-free! He said he was not a believer in Jesus but He was thanking God for the remarkable pain resolution. The man’s father was in total disbelief, as well. Later that same day, a camp girl was stung and we prayed for her, soaked her foot, and she was pain-free after an hour! So many people were shocked. She arrived to the service during worship and everyone stopped and cheered. The Bible says His manifestations are like the wind. We don’t understand why He acts when He does, but it is sure cool to see God intervene like this. I think it reminded us all to ask for God’s intervention more freely.
Richie and I took the boat back to Porto de Moz and picked up our families and returned to the camp. We swam, jumped off the boat, and played games with the camp kids. We kept our feet off the bottom of the river! These camp kids had a session where any kid who wanted to could get up and preach for five minutes. I stopped counting at 25 kids! They laughed, cried, spoke from their heart and used the bible quite well. To see any kids this age doing this is something, but, again, to see such a thing among kids in the Amazon Basin was remarkable. The evening service wrapping up the weekend was intense. The worship was loud and full of energy. Many kids were on their knees, working out some things with God. They began at 7:00, we left at 9:00, and I heard them still going at 12:30a when I fell asleep on the boat, about 100 yds off shore.
We drove the 1 ½ hrs back to PDM (15 mi) and had a nice lunch with Richie and Christie. The kids colored some eggs with food coloring and crayons and had fun doing so. We ate the eggs for dinner and that was fun, as well. Bets bought each of the kids a box of chocolates that Christie found in town a couple days ago which they thoroughly enjoyed and they did a nice job sharing with the local kids. The kids are now playing “Phase 10” with about six neighborhood kids at our kitchen table. There is much laughter and portugese learning going on. They actually communicate with each other quite well. Its so nice to see.
It’s been a nice trip in that we feel much more familiar with what it would be like living in a river town and having a river ministry. Last evening we had a nice service and during worship, I sensed God confirm our steps and our call to be here. It seemed God was encouraging me to, once again, let go of my “what about…” thoughts. What about other places…, for example. I CAN trust Him. In the directing of our past steps, and in His leading forward. I felt encouragement to look at this region and strategize. And to encourage the same with our group. Each believer (no matter where he/she lives) has an area of influence geographically and relationally. God can use each of us to draw people to Him. I’m newly motivated today to open my eyes to the “turf” that God has given me and attack it in love for His sake and for their sake. Pray…think…work. Its so nice that our God encourages our dependence on Him (pray), but that He also delights in our participation (think, work) in what He wants to accomplish. I’m grateful today.
On our arrival back to PDM Saturday, we lost the anchor (it got tangled in the rope as we were tying the boat off) and this morning we tried to “fish” for it by dragging another anchor through the area. The bottom is so full of stuff (tires, etc) that we couldn’t find it. So Richie hired a couple guys to search for it. These guys fish the area for aquarium fish that are shipped around the world. Their mouth pieces have rubber tubes connected to a basic air compressor in their row boat and they free dive looking for fish, sometimes staying down for hours. The anchor was in about 10 meters of water and they found it in about 5 minutes. Richie paid them $25.00, the equivalent of two days wages. We saw the aquarium fish they had caught and they were the bottom feeders that look somewhat prehistoric. I’ve seen them in the aquariums in the states, but I don’t know their name.
We rode with Richie back to Vitoria and arrived home at about midnight on Monday. It was so nice to be home.